Sunday, July 22, 2012

Visualizing Peace

Visualizing Peace
Eph. 2:11-22[1]
Last week, we talked about St. Paul’s vision of God’s plan to restore all things by gathering them together in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10).  It’s a vision of unity, wholeness, and peace, for the whole human family.  But when you look at the human family in our day, I wonder if we can even begin to conceive what that kind of peace might look like.  We are divided by politics, divided by religion, divided by race, and divided by the violence that runs rampant through this family of ours.  Can we really imagine unity, wholeness and peace—between Republicans and Democrats, between Christians and Muslims, between Jewish settlers and Palestinian activists, between tribal warlords who wreak havoc all over the globe?  I think in fact that in the current state of things, with all these different groups of people who are so at odds with each other—who even hate one another enough to kill—it’s difficult if not impossible for us to visualize the kind of peace St. Paul hoped for.
It’s not as if the world St. Paul lived in was any less divided.  He was facing his own set of prejudices in the churches he served.  Most if not all the churches of his day were living with the tension between Jewish and Greek and Roman members .  From a Jewish perspective, all non-Jews were Gentile heathen.  From a Greek and Roman perspective, all others were uncultured and uncivilized barbarians.  As you can imagine, this created some problems among the churches.  In fact, that’s probably an understatement.  A careful reading of his letters suggests that St. Paul was always dealing with one conflict or another relating to the divisions in his world that were troubling the churches. 
Nevertheless, he could still envision all those divided people coming together in Christ in a world of unity, wholeness, and peace.  The reason is that he believed that Jesus’ death on the cross effected reconciliation between the divided parts of the human family.  He framed this from a Jewish perspective—in his mind it was the rules and regulations of the Law that separated the Jewish people and the Gentiles of his day and therefore built a dividing wall of hostility between them.[2]  At least part of the outcome of Jesus’ death was to cancel out the validity of the rules that divided people. 
But I think there was more to it that made St. Paul believe that the future of the human family was one of unity.  He says that through Jesus’ death, he “made peace” for us all.  In part, it would seem that Paul is referring to the idea that Jesus’ death reconciled us all to God.  The implication is that if we can be reconciled to God, then we should be open to reconciliation with each another.[3]  But I think more importantly, one aspect of this line of thinking has to do with the idea that the only way to overcome hatred is to absorb it by responding with love.  It’s an ancient concept:  you cannot overcome hatred with hatred.  You can only overcome hatred with love.  You cannot overcome violence with violence.   You can only overcome violence with peace. [4] And so it is that St. Paul viewed Jesus’ death as an act of peace overcoming the hatreds and divisions of the human family.  He believed that the peace inaugurated by Jesus Christ could heal the divisions of his world. 
I guess the question facing us is whether we believe that peace can heal the divisions in our world.  Despite St. Paul’s proclamation of a “new humanity” united in Christ, it seems that, if anything, the conflicts of our world have proliferated.  I wonder whether part of the problem is that we have not taken our role as the “Body of Christ” seriously enough.  As the Body of Christ, it is our task to demonstrate what that unity looks like in our life together as communities of faith.[5] It is our job to extend the grace and mercy and love and peace of Christ to the people of our world. 
That may seem a daunting task.  There is so much division, we may wonder what one person can do to change all that.  What can our peaceful acts accomplish in the face of so much hatred and anger and violence?  In spite of the size of the problem, I do believe that one peaceful act can transform the whole world.[6] One act of patience, one act of kindness, one act of understanding, one peaceful act can have a ripple effect in our world, the end of which we may never know.  Our peaceful actions in our everyday lives can contribute toward the vision of a human family living together in unity, wholeness, and peace. 
Jesus of Nazareth believed this, and he gave his life for it.  St. Paul believed it, and he called the churches of his day and ours to demonstrate that unity.  Saints and sages throughout history have believed it, and have taught those who were willing to listen for generations that it is possible for us to live a different way.  When we believe that what we do can make this kind of difference, then maybe we can visualize the peace St. Paul envisioned—because we will see its effect on ourselves and on the people around us.[7]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/22/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 35-36; cf. also Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:399.
[3] Cf. Perkins, “Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:398.
[4] Cf. Dhammapada 5: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
[5] Cf. the Book of Order 2011-2013 G-1.0304: Faithful church membership includes “demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church.”  Cf. also Confession of 1967, 9.21-26: “To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community. We are entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and share his labor of healing the enmities which separate us from God and from each other.”
[6] Cf. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart, 39-41: “Our entire society can be changed by one person’s peaceful presence”; Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here, 6-7: “Peace is contagious.”
[7] Cf. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 32: “The apostle’s teaching holds out the hope and prospect of a reconciled, unified, and amicable society, whose microcosm is seen in the church’s worldwide, transnational, and reconciling family.”

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